The Russo-Ukrainian War has lowered the nuclear threshold, with Moscow continuing to make threats about the possible use of nuclear weapons in the conflict. In June, the nuclear threshold might have been lowered further when Russia promised the erstwhile Soviet Union satellite state and current ally Belarus that it would soon transfer nuclear-capable Iskander missile systems.
This move could be potentially destabilizing because Iskanders are capable of carrying tactical nuclear weapons. Additionally, Russia has also offered to help Belarus upgrade its fleet of Su-25 fighter jets to make them nuclear-capable. Is Russia on the verge of offering a nuclear security guarantee to Belarus and would this jeopardize strategic stability?
After news of the Iskander offer broke, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov clarified that the systems that Russia aimed to transfer to Belarus are capable of carrying nuclear weapons but are not necessarily nuclear-armed. This is not a new phenomenon, as countries like China have previously sold nuclear-capable missile systems to Saudi Arabia, such as the DF-21, after modifying them to make them only conventionally capable.
There are no reports about whether Russia would modify its Iskander systems before transferring them to Belarus, but the possibility of deploying nuclear-armed systems without Russian armed forces in command is exaggerated. Also, the nuclear-capable systems transferred to Belarus pose more of a conventional threat to NATO since Belarus does not possess nuclear warheads to arm these systems.
There is no doubt that Belarus has given Russia critical logistical support during the Ukrainian crisis. In February, only weeks before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus conducted joint military exercises on the latter’s border with Ukraine. During this exercise, Russia activated the S-400 air and missile defense system. Since then, Russia has stationed missile launchers in Belarus to launch strikes into Ukraine. In May 2022, Belarus announced that it planned to buy Iskander missile systems and S-400 systems from Russia as a possible deterrent against Ukrainian retaliatory attacks.
In his announcement of the S-400 and Iskander missile deal, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko accused the West of “elevating Nazism to a rank of state ideology.” This was in response to the West’s imposition of sanctions on Russia and Belarus for their involvement in the war in Ukraine. The West has also supplied Ukraine with sophisticated artillery systems to sustain its defensive efforts. Six Russian aircraft launched twelve missiles from the territory of Belarus into the Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy oblasts.
It is obvious that Belarus will seek credible offensive and defensive capabilities to support Russia during the conflict. Lukashenko has already requested Putin to make them capable of launching a “symmetrical response.” However, so far, the West has not ventured into any nuclear conflict with Russia, so symmetry here is only of the conventional variety.
Russian president Vladimir Putin threatened in February that if the West intervened in Russia’s “special military operation” the “consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.” Accordingly, Russia has kept its nuclear forces on high alert.
As Belarus supports Russia’s war in Ukraine and allows Russian forces to launch offensive strikes from its territory, there is a possibility that Belarus will face retaliatory Ukrainian strikes. However, Belarus has not actively involved itself in the war and has not sent any troops into Ukraine alongside Russian forces. Belarus will not want to jeopardize strategic stability by allowing nuclear weapons to be fielded on its territory.
In February, Lukashenko rejected the possibility of deploying nuclear weapons in Belarus when he stated that “[a]s long as no one is trying to strangle the people of Belarus, not just nuclear weapons—conventional weapons—are also ruled out.” Yet in 2016, Lukashenko sought the transfer of Iskander missiles to modernize Belarus’ ground-launched conventional capabilities and provide it with a credible stand-off system.
Finally, Belarus has termed itself an authoritarian state, and Russia would not want to risk sending nuclear systems to a country where its ability to shape command and control policies and decisions is impaired. Belarus and Russia are both aware of the command and control complexities that would arise in deploying nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory.
Russia’s willingness to provide nuclear-capable missile systems to Belarus is a signal from Moscow that, just like NATO, Russia could provide a nuclear umbrella for its allies. For Belarus, these systems provide long-range capabilities that can better deter neighboring NATO countries. It is indeed a win-win situation for Moscow and Minsk.
Debalina Ghoshal is a non-resident fellow with the Council on International Policy.